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Vignettes from the State Capitol

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The Connecticut Bar Association Young Lawyers’ Section sponsored a legislative breakfast Wednesday morning, April 11, 2011 at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.

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Our law office has an intern from England visiting, and I thought it would be a nice way for her to rub elbows with the political class. Only after I left did I realize how ripe the material my morning made as a column, so if burn a bridge or two (as if anyone is paying attention), oh well. Bridges are made for rebuilding.

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Republican state Representative Larry Cafero was the keynote speaker, and a few Republican state representatives joined him and the 30 or so young lawyers for the meeting.  We all mingled.

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I ended up in a conversation Cafero and GOP state Rep. Pam Sawyer, who serves Hebron, Andover and Marlborough about reforms to our democracy to improve our miserable, shameful voting rate.  I spoke of a broader vision of a multi-party democracy, as I feel the two-party system is a failure.

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Rep. Cafero championed no-excuses absentee balloting for 30 days before an election. Right now, you need an excuse to obtain an absentee ballot. It will take a constitutional amendment.

At my suggestion of mandatory voting like in Australia, Rep. Sawyer looked aghast.

But voting is a right, she said.

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And I responded that I see it as a duty. The language of rights and duties is blurry, and where one ends and one begins is difficult to draw. We require that 18-year-old men register for selective service, we require jury duty, so why not voting?

Rep. Sawyer was not having it. Why do we want people who are uninformed voting?

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If they don’t know, that’s why you include a binding none-of-the-above option, or better yet, a blank ballot. Let voters opt for a blank ballot if they know not for whom will best represent their interests.

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Rep. Sawyer appeared to search for an argument. Perhaps she sought language saying we have the freedom not to vote. Maybe she stopped herself, realizing that it might be a stupid thing to say. Maybe I misread the situation.

Instead, she asked about enforcement. A small fine like they do in Australia. Simple as that.

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For me, when I look at the fights people like Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evars took on to win the right to vote, I have a duty to them and those soldiers who fought and died to expand the franchise.

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For those who don’t know, Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten to within an inch of her life by Mississippi cops for registering people to vote. She later walked from Mississippi to Atlantic City in 1964 to protest the Democratic Party’s exclusion of black delegates from the presidential convention.

An unrepentant white supremacist shot and murdered Medgar Evers in his own driveway on June 12, 1963, in front of his wife.  Evers had just left an NAACP meeting, and he was carrying a “Jim Crow Must Go” t-shirt. The assassin walked free for three decades until a conviction in 1994.

Considering George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, we haven’t improved much.  But I think mandatory voting is a way to improve the quality of civic dialogue and participation in our republic. Seeing Rep. Sawyer’s reaction to the concept shows me the fight we are up against in this battle.

Rep. Cafero discussed no-excuses absentee balloting as a way of improving the voting rate. I don’t think that will do. He said that he wanted Democrats to pass no excuses absentee balloting.

But according to Assistant Secretary of the State Jamie Spallone, an attorney who was also at the breakfast, we won’t see a constitutional question on the statewide ballot until 2014 because of Republican opposition to various portions of the bill.

I will have to revisit this for another column, because I am missing some of the nuances.

II

Rev. Walter Everett’s 24-year-old son Scott was murdered in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1987. Rev. Everett now lives in Pennsylvania with his wife. But he and his wife are members of the Boston-based organization Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights.

Rev. Everett and his wife drove up to Connecticut to be in the state capital Wednesday, April 11, 2012 to lobby for the repeal of the death penalty. I admire that.

Multiple sites on the internet explain how Rev. Everett came to forgive his son’s killer, Mike Carlucci: “I knew that the anger was destroying me,” Everett is quoted as saying.

When I met him, he seemed a peaceful, resolute man. I do not envy what he endured, but I think we can learn from his spiritual journey to forgiveness.

III

While our intern enjoyed the free massage being given out in the west wing of the state capital, I climbed a flight of white granite stairs to the second floor to see what was going on. I ran into some old friends.

As we shot the breeze, a group of people stood around, looking like a gaggle of kids hovering over a dead cat on a playground. Apparently, it was a committee meeting.

And, I am told, that is how committee’s move bills to the floor of the House when the legislature is in session. I don’t know how the committee members could hear everything, given the din of the hallway chambers. It seemed like I could have walked up and voted, but my friend said the vote counters would know.

I’m glad someone had a hint of organization among the chaos.

Just then, Gov. Dan Malloy’s hatchet man Roy Occhiogrosso strode by, purposefully. Power gives people this glow, this get-out-of-my-way stride, this I-can-make-you-or-break-you attitude, this do-what-I-say-or-you-will-lose-your-job saunter. Just an observation.

IV

I wandered into the restroom, just ahead of a man in a wheelchair. It appears to have been a day for people with disabilities to lobby for policies to create conditions conducive to independent living.

As I held open the door for the man, I noted the third floor men’s room in the state capital is not handicap accessible. The cheery man wheeled past, telling me not to worry, he gets by.

V

A second later, I looked up, and there was Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Dan Esty.

I told him that I was thrilled the appraisals for the Haddam land swap came back and killed the land swap.

Sometimes the process works, he said.

I told him that I would have begged him on my knees last year to have stood up as the Commissioner of the DEEP and criticized the swap.

He said he was told not to. He described it as kabuki theater.

The conversation appeared to pain him, a reminder that he had marching orders, that he could not defend the land, that he has political ambitions, and that he had compromise his integrity to keep his hold on power (See Roy Occhiogrosso, above).

The precedent is set, I said, that bad policymaking can continue, and we need to show it must stop.

Last night (April 10, 2012), I said, the Green Party of Connecticut nominated Melissa Schlag, a leading opponent of the swap, to run for Sen. Eileen Daily’s seat in the 33rd district.

There must be a political price to pay for abusing the process. I didn’t have a chance to mention to him that the Lyme Democratic Town Committee refused to endorse Sen. Daily for re-election, and that East Haddam will likely nuke Daily too.

He said that in the future, DEEP is working to insure that protected parcels stay protected. I kind of thought that was the purpose of the Natural Heritage Trust Program. He said yes, but the legislature can sell Hammonasset state park if it wants.

Would he defend Hammonasset if the legislature wanted to sell it and he was told to stand down?

 

 

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